In 2008, I was encouraged to organize a skeptics group in Houston. Relying on the advice of friends from Denver, who had successfully started a similar group using the social website Meetup (www.meetup.com), I launched my site and have seen slow but steady growth. As discussed by Reed Esau on a Skepticiality podcast, it is often difficult to generate interest, keep the turnover rate low, and get assistance with organizing meetings. In Houston, matters are complicated in that the metropolitan area is 60 miles across in each direction and there is almost no public transporation except for limited bus service in the central area. People are reluctant to attend evening meetings when the location is far from the office and the drive home afterwards might be up to an hour long. However, the group is slowly growing and we've been able to attract some lively, engaged people.
I was therefore interested when I received, through the Meetup site, an email invitation to join a group that was forming closer to my area of Houston, labeled as a Freethinkers group. The organizer wanted to work on eliminating the ‘imposition of religious doctrine on Free-thinkers in the area," that the group was not against organized religion itself, and specifically mentioned the offering of Bible-as-literature classes in the local school district. Apropos of recent discussions in SWIFT on religion, I must state that, while I am agnostic, my passion in skepticism is directed toward the paranormal, alternative medicine issues, and illiteracy in science, so the particular focus of this group did not interest me, but I thought I might join in order to meet skeptical people in my neighborhood and possibly recruit new members for my own skeptics organization.
I don't wish to make this post about school curriculum, but need to give some background. As regards the issues with teaching comparative literature, Bible as cultural or historical, or other related questions, just last week I heard an excellent podcast from Reasonable Doubt episode 49, which highlighted that many of the available textbooks for these courses are not religion-neutral, and that new books, in the manner of Bart Ehrman or others, needed to be made available for schools to use. Additionally, recent legislation in Texas requires schools to offer electives in comparative religions, Bible, or other associated topics, i.e., Hebrew texts, and that the classes must not promote a particular religious viewpoint. The schools may fulfill this requirement even by including it in a discussion in a general literature or history course. The Texas Freedom Network is a well-respected organization which closely tracks and reports on topics relating to religion in government and education, and testifies before the State in various roles. In a phone conversation yesterday, the Communications Director Dan Quinn told me that the TFN had reviewed the bill, and found that most schools already dealt with these topics, usually in the history or social science departments. As he pointed out, knowing about the Bible from a cultural standpoint helps you understand references in Shakespeare, historical events, and its impact on Western culture and civilization.
I had called TFN because, in addition to having my interest piqued due to hearing the podcast and seeing the new Freethinkers meetup group, yesterday PZ Myers posted a sarcastic blog that was flat-out wrong, saying "This year, Texas will require its students to take a Bible course. In the supposedly secular public schools" and linked to an op-ed piece that was incorrect in its interpretation of the bill. You can imagine the mockery that followed in the comments. The TFN had not seen this post, but agreed to contact Dr. Myers. I noticed this morning that Dr. Myers posted a correction written by the TFN, with an explanation of what the requirements actually are, which you can see here.
Because of my involvement in this, I RSVP'd the new Freethinkers meeting notice for this upcoming Saturday, and wrote a comment that I did not have a problem with schools offering electives on Bible-as-literature, but that work was needed to make sure the textbooks were selected from scholarly sources rather than some of the evangelical publishers who promote premillennial dispensationalism or literal interpretations. I referenced the Reasonable Doubt podcast and included a link.
Within a few hours, I received an automated email saying that I had been removed from the group. When I logged into my Meetup.com account and went to this group's site, a large banner proclaims "You are prohibited by the Organizer from joining this Meetup Group." My comment had been deleted as well. Two polite emails to the organizer, asking for the reason for my removal, were sent yesterday and have not been acknowledged.
Ironically, the charter for this group says "There is quite a bit of freedom for your individual expression, examples, and the personal tribulations you have been exposed to or have observed." There is a lot of freedom, as long as you don't have any opinions that might be different than the organizer. Freethinking, indeed. I can still read the site, and see that several of my loyal friends have signed up and commented, but the organizer has not responded to anyone.
Organizers are certainly free to control their memberships, and I have no problem with that. I have no problem with the guy being neither skeptical nor particularly literate, and wanting to form his own group dedicated to a topic he feels passionate about. It's a social networking site, not a public forum. I haven't ‘banned' anyone from my skeptics group, even the guy who shows up and claims he can read minds and control the directions of hurricane (although he can't tell me why Hurricane Ike wasn't pushed out to sea instead of drowning people and nearly wiping Galveston off the face of the Earth - alas, poor Hooters). His Freethinker group isn't going to last. From running a group, I know that about half the people who RSVP will not show up, and his meetings typical generate only one or two responses, he being one of them. The site shows that eight people attended his only meeting, but the organizer can manipulate that by claiming unnamed ‘guests'. His writing is full of rambling mispelled words, similar to what you unfortunately see as typical on the Internet. My lesson from this rather fun episode has been that skeptics, ‘freethinkers', well-published scientists, atheists and agnostics, indeed all groups, can sometimes be just as dogmatic and quick to judge without thinking, as do those who hold uncritically fast to their particular beliefs or non-beliefs. Meanwhile, I'm going to get a tshirt that says "Banned from a Freethinkers Club for thinking freely" and wear it proudly.
Further reading: Several excellent, readable books on textural criticism and the history of how the Bible was written, by Bart Ehrman, and Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism can be purchased from the JREF Amazon Library link on the homepage of randi.org